Any show by Amy X. Neuburg and the Cello ChiXtet is a treat, but seeing them play Davies Symphony Hall was irresistible.
They weren’t in the symphony pit, but upstairs, in the second-tier lounge as part of the Davies After Hours series. There’s a resemblance to an after-hours jazz club: People milling around, buying drinks, and talking over the music.
The motivation for the series, apparently, is the fact that a few hundred people stick around after the symphony for a drink. The crowd was thick, and once the band started playing, the sound drew everyone to that end of the lounge for a look. Click the picture at right, and you can baaarely see Neuburg’s head next to the speaker.
It’s well known that the classical-music crowd is aging, so of the few hundred who started the night, only several dozen were still around after the half-hour mark. By the end of the band’s 70-minute set, maybe 10 or 20 diehards were still there, including those of us who’d come to the symphony to see Neuburg.
The ChiXtet was created for Neuburg’s song cycle, The Secret Language of Subways. The songs captivated me back in 2006, as I’d written here and was thrilled when a CD of the songs (including a Peter Gabriel-era Genesis cover they’d been using as an encore) came out last year.
The songs follow the avant-pop formula of Neuburg’s past work, maybe with a dash more intensity given that some of the songs come from staying in New York circa 2001. The serious songs, like the amazing “One Lie” that opens the cycle, are deeply powerful. Happier ones, like “Hey” (which opened last night’s set) and “The Gooseneck” are poppy fun. And “Someone Else’s Sleep” has rapidly become one of my favorite songs, possibly of all time. After four years, it still bowls me over.
The CD is great, but you have to see the ChiXtet performing live. They’re truly enjoying the music, and the visual cues among them help you appreciate the precision in these songs and the work that’s gone into them. Davies was a high-profile gig for them, and I’m glad for that, but it wasn’t ideal due to the noise. A lot of the songs’ depth comes from the live looping Neuburg does, of her voice and the cellos, and that was sometimes difficult to hear. And the wordplay in the lyrics — like the similar vowel patterns on different verses in “Shrapnel,” was lost in the din.
It was still a fun set, though, and we even got to hear two newly commissioned songs. Both were based on that night’s symphony program. One called “Soundproof” took from the main theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto No. 1, making for a more somber sound than the group usually has. Another patterned itself after Berg’s “Lulu Suite,” using a lot of 12-tone rows and some samples from a recorded performance of the suite. And because the “Lulu” opera that Berg was writing has a palindromic structure to the plot, Neuburg wrote this song as a palindrome, including the lyrics. The overall sound was interesting and complicated.
The symphony, by the way, was good. Guest violinist James Ehnes nailed the violin concerto, not just the fast part sbut the pillowy, soft trilled notes that seemed to come up a lot. His first-movement cadenza was a showcase, as Ehnes played both the main theme and a bass line, creating the illusion of two or even three violinists playing at once. Lots of fireworks, and the music was easy on the ears — the audience loved it.
Here’s Neuburg and the ChiXtet performing “The Gooseneck,” a video taken from the 2006 premiere of the complete song cycle.